A barge is a flat-bottomed boat, built mainly for river and canal transport of heavy goods. Most barges are not self-propelled and need to be towed by tugboats or pushed by towboats. Canal barges, towed by draft animals on an adjacent towpath, contended with the railway in the early industrial revolution, but were outcompeted in the carriage of high-value items due to the higher speed, falling costs, and route flexibility of rail transport.
Barges are used today for low-value bulk items, as the cost of hauling goods by barge is very low. Barges are also used for very heavy or bulky items; a typical barge measures 195 feet by 35 feet (59.4 m by 10.6 m), and can carry up to 1,500 tons of cargo. As an example, on June 26, 2006, a 565-ton catalytic cracking unit reactor was shipped by barge from the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma to a refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Extremely large objects are normally shipped in sections and assembled onsite, but shipping an assembled unit reduced costs and avoided reliance on construction labor at the delivery site (which in this case was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina). Of the reactor's 700 mile journey, only about 40 miles were traveled overland, from the final port to the refinery.
Self-propelled barges may be used as such when traveling downstream or upstream in placid waters; they are operated as an unpowered barge, with the assistance of a tugboat, when traveling upstream in faster waters. Canal barges are usually made for the particular canal in which they will operate.
On the Great British canal system, the term 'barge' is used to describe a boat wider than a narrowboat, and the people who move barges are often known as lightermen. In the United States, deckhands perform the labor and are supervised by a leadman or the mate. The captain and pilot steer the towboat, which pushes one or more barges held together with rigging, collectively called 'the tow'. The crew live aboard the towboat as it travels along the inland river system or the intracoastal waterways. These towboats travel between ports and are also called line-haul boats.
Poles are used on barges to fend off the barge as it nears other vessels or a wharf. These are often called 'pike poles'. On shallow canals in the United Kingdom, long punt poles are used to manoeuvre or propel the barge.
Barge is attested from 1300, from Old French barge, from Vulgar Latin barga. The word originally could refer to any small boat; the modern meaning arose around 1480. Bark "small ship" is attested from 1420, from Old French barque, from Vulgar Latin barca (400 AD). The more precise meaning "three-masted ship" arose in the 17th century, and often takes the French spelling for disambiguation. Both are probably derived from the Latin barica, from Greek baris "Egyptian boat", from Coptic bari "small boat", hieroglyphic Egyptian
The long poles used to maneuver or propel a barge have given rise to the saying "I wouldn't touch that [subject/thing] with a barge pole." This is a variation on the phrase "I wouldn't touch that with a [insert length] pole." It appears that the association with barge poles came after the phrase was in use. Modern usage uses a 'ten-foot' pole, but the earliest instances in print involve a forty-foot pole , which is improbably long for operating a barge.